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3D printing used to reconstruct road accident victim’s face

Two X-rays of Stephen's skull, used to plan his reconstructive surgery

17 March 2014

The survivor of a serious motorcycle accident has become the first patient in the world to have their face reconstructed entirely through 3D printing technology – in a process that was designed by two UK PhD students.

Sean Peel, a Loughborough University graduate, and Ffion O’Malley, a graduate from Cardiff Metropolitan University, worked alongside surgeons at Morriston Hospital in Swansea, Wales, to fine-tune this process that could revolutionise reconstructive surgery.

Thanks to their work, Cardiff resident Stephen Power has now had successful reconstructive surgery, despite breaking both cheekbones, his jaw and nose, and fracturing his skull in the accident in 2012.

Working as part of a team at the Centre for Applied Reconstructive Technologies in Surgery (CARTIS), the technique they devised combines 3D technology such as scanning and printing with technical surgical procedures and medical expertise.

Mr Power underwent an eight-hour procedure, which involved having his cheekbones cut into three segments using a 3D-printed cutting guide. The bones were then moved into the exact pre-planned locations using computer software via a 3D-printed positioning guide. Titanium implants which had been designed to fit his bones were then screwed into position, and the positioning guide removed.  

Rigorous research

Sean works as a Design and Research Engineer at the National Centre for Product Design and Development Research (PDR) while doing his PhD part-time. He said: ‘One of the benefits of being based at a university is that you have the opportunity to do this kind of work with that extra rigour.

‘If this was a commercial project it’s unlikely we would have been able to try out as many different designs, but as researchers, doing eight or nine different designs for the surgeon to practise with was justified as part of our experiments and data collection.

‘The connections we have at Morriston Hospital meant we were always working alongside surgeons and learning from watching surgery itself.’

Real-life technology

Sean, who trained as an industrial designer, was drawn to the project as it allowed him to apply his technical skills in a rewarding context.

‘Design can have a positive effect on people’s lives in all sorts of ways – but this is particularly tangible.

‘I was delighted to be offered the role – having previously doubted the existence of opportunities for non-medics to be a part of this kind of work.

‘We are considering ways that this technology can be used through developing new design tools to allow surgeons themselves to design the implants to specific requirements for each patient. This would allow a lot of flexibility and efficiency, and routine use of this approach.’

Enthusiasm and excellence

The UK is a world leader in cutting-edge 3D surgery, thanks to a unique blend of manufacturing facilities and scientific and technical expertise.

Renishaw – a major global 3D printer manufacturer – has its global base in Gloucestershire, and the CARTIS team has a direct partnership with them.

Interest from the UK's National Health Service in efficient, effective techniques also provides a constant surge of interest, says Sean.

‘There is so much enthusiasm for trying this kind of technology in the UK,’ he said.

‘It’s an excellent environment for this kind of research.

‘We have had students visit from the USA and other countries in Europe because the UK is a leader in having both the research and the manufacturing in this area.’

Above: Stephen Power before (left) and after the surgery (right)

‘I won’t have to hide away’

Adrian Sugar, the consultant surgeon leading on the project, said the use of 3D printing took away the ‘guessing game’ that is involved in traditional research techniques.

‘I think it's incomparable – the results are in a different league from anything we've done before,’ he said.

‘What this does is it allows us to be much more precise. Everybody now is starting to think in this way – guesswork is not good enough.’

And if the result is significant for surgeons and researchers, this is nothing compared to the difference it will make for patients.

Mr Power said that he used to cover his face completely when he left the house, but since the surgery, that has changed.

‘It is totally life-changing,’ he told the BBC.

‘I could see the difference straightaway the day I woke up from the surgery.

Now, he says, ‘I won't have to hide away.’

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